Smallpox, History, Genealogy, and Context

This is a true story about science and public policy that should get the attention of genealogists and historians:

A little more than thirty years ago, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been effectively eradicated around the globe.  Smallpox was an especially nasty disease that in the 20th century alone killed half a billion people. Its demise was due to modern vaccines and a concerted effort by scientists, physicians, governments, and nongovernmental organizations to reach populations in every corner of the world.  This was one of the exceptional achievements of 20th century science and public policy.

There was a problem, however, after eradication of the disease: there were reference samples of the smallpox virus held in research facilities around the world. What to do about them?  The World Health Organization determined that they should be destroyed. The governments of both the United States and Russia argued vehemently against this idea, asserting that maintaining research stocks could lead to the development of new drugs to deal with other diseases. Eventually, all the smallpox samples on Earth except two were destroyed. One of the surviving stocks is held in a high security laboratory at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA; the other is resident in a similar facility at the State Center Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk, Russia.

The smallpox story came to mind recently as I read about and contemplated the circumstances of a cemetery in El Dorado County, California, just a few miles from my home in suburban Sacramento County. In 1848, just prior to the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills, black miners worked an area of the lower American River, near what is now the city of Folsom. Soon, there was built up a thriving community of black, Chinese, Portuguese, and Irish miners.  The settlement was called Negro Hill. The mining was good. When the nearby town of Mormon Island burned to the ground, its residents were welcomed into Negro Hill. Among the citizens of Negro Hill were Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, two of the men known later as “The Big Four” who built the transcontinental railroad east from Sacramento. (Stanford was later Governor of California and namesake benefactor Stanford University).

But within a few years, like so many other placer mining areas, the metal around Negro Hill was exhausted.  The community shrank into a near-ghost town.

In the late 1940’s the federal government decided to dam the American River just above Folsom. The resulting reservoir, now known as Folsom Lake, would flood many historic communities, including Negro Hill.  Efforts were made to remove and preserve historic artifacts, including a number of grave sites at the Negro Hill cemetery.  In 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers relocated thirty-six graves to another site in El Dorado County, providing new grave markers.

The new markers were stamped “Nigger Hill.”  The Corps of Engineers blamed the slur on locally-produced maps. No one seemed to take responsibility and no one knew who had jurisdiction over the site.

Just this week, after years of prodding by citizens, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to replace the offensive markers with new ones. The decades-long debate had been quite contentious. Some advocated leaving the markers alone as a reminder of the wicked past–that it may never happen again. Of course, others strongly opposed that idea. Today the region seems to be united behind the replacement plan.

What should we do as genealogists, historians, and archivists with documents and artifacts which may be reflective of prevailing attitudes of a past era, but are gravely offensive today?

I once was in an antique store, really more of junk warehouse, and I came across a sign which once had been nailed to the door of a Sacramento restaurant.  It read, “No dogs, Negroes, or Mexicans.”  I bought the sign for $2.00.  I was at the time an associate professor at a prominent western undergraduate institution. For awhile, I hung the sign underneath my law degree on my office wall.  But it soon became apparent that only a very few people got the message I was conveying. For most people, the contextual juxtaposition had little effect and they were offended and dismayed. I took the sign down and today it is buried somewhere in my garage amidst the clutter of a thirty-five year career of pushing into places my ancestors of African descent were not allowed.


6 Responses to “Smallpox, History, Genealogy, and Context”

  • Sheryl says:

    Great post–I also have often reflected on the question you posed about what to do with “documents and artifacts which may be reflective of prevailing attitudes of a past era, but are gravely offensive today.” And, I haven’t always found solutions that are totally satisfactory; but I do try to provide background information and explain the context for such items.

  • Craig says:

    Thank you, Cynthia! By the way, dear readers, I highly recommend Cynthia’s blog, Heritage Zen.

  • Wonderful post, and your last sentence is powerful. History is not politically correct, and context is everything. If we see something that is shocking or offensive and feel uncomfortable that’s a good thing. We don’t learn by ignoring history. We need to confront it, discuss it, and learn from it. We should feel uncomfortable, and we should be offended. If we are not, we haven’t learned a thing.

    Thank you.

  • I was just going to post the Santayana quote, but you beat me to it! Great post, Craig!

  • Craig says:

    Susan, You got it right! I bought the sign and displayed to do exactly as you said: provoke discussion and awareness. But that went over the heads of many, sadly. I agree completely that we have to keep moving forward in this world . . . but as the man said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” [George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense, Volume 1 of The Life of Reason

  • Susan says:

    I would hope your sign would have provoked discussion and awareness rather than an apparent instinct to paper over or forget the society that existed only a few years earlier. We can’t spend every hour of our lives reflecting on our journeys – there wouldn’t be much to show for such contemplation. But we need reminders.

May 2011
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